Diagnosing genital herpes 

Genital herpes can be diagnosed more easily and accurately when the infection is still active, so you should seek medical attention as soon as you develop symptoms.

Primary infection

If you think you may have genital herpes for the first time (a primary infection), you should visit your local sexual health clinic (see below) as soon as possible. These are also called genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics.

Find your nearest sexual health service.

Wherever possible, an initial diagnosis of genital herpes should be made by a GUM specialist. If you cannot get to a GUM clinic, you should see your GP instead. They may refer you to a GUM specialist for a formal diagnosis and treatment.

When being tested for genital herpes you may also be asked:

  • whether you have experienced similar symptoms before
  • whether you have ever had a cold sore, which are also caused by the herpes simplex virus
  • whether you have ever had a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • about your history of sexual partners

A swab is used to collect a sample of fluid from a blister. A swab is a small piece of absorbent material, such as gauze or cotton, which is attached to the end of a stick or wire. The sample will be sent to a laboratory to be tested for the herpes simplex virus (HSV). You may also be screened for other STIs.

You should be aware that even if your swab result comes back negative for HSV, you may still have genital herpes and a diagnosis will only be confirmed by any recurrent outbreaks.  

Sexual health clinics

What happens at a sexual health clinic?

Some sexual health clinics are walk-in clinics, whereas others require you to book an appointment. Phone the clinic to find out.

When you attend a clinic, you will be asked for some details including:

  • your name and contact details  you do not have to give your real name or tell staff who your GP is if you do not want to, but any details you provide will be treated confidentially
  • why you have attended the clinic  try not to be embarrassed and say you think you may have a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • your sexual history  for example, when you last had sex, whether you used a condom and whether you have had an STI in the past

If you are attending the clinic for genital herpes, you may be offered tests for other STIs. You do not have to agree to have these tests, but it is recommended that you do. Tests can only be carried out with your consent. You may need to give a urine or blood sample for other STI tests.

Results from tests for STIs are usually available in a few weeks. If you need treatment, this will be discussed with you.

If you have an STI, your partner (and recent previous partners) will need to be tested and, if necessary, treated to prevent the infection being passed to anyone else. 

Staff at the sexual health clinic will be able to advise you about which of your sexual partners will need to be contacted, and may be able to contact them on your behalf. If you wish, your anonymity will be protected when contacting your previous sexual partners.

Read more information about visiting a sexual health clinic.

Do I have to pay for tests at sexual health clinics?

Sexual health services are free of charge and they are available to everyone, regardless of age. If you go to your GP, you will probably have to pay a prescription charge for any treatment you require.

Are sexual health services confidential?

Check-ups and treatments for STIs at GP surgeries and GUM clinics are completely confidential. Your parents or carers will not be told, even if you are under 16 years of age.

However, you may be advised to contact your partner and any previous partners so they can be tested and treated as well. Staff at the GUM clinic may be able to help you with this.

Referral to a specialist 

If you have genital herpes and you are pregnant, it is very important you are referred for specialist treatment. This is because the infection could pass to your unborn baby. 

Read about complications of genital herpes for more information about genital herpes and pregnancy.

You should also be referred for specialist treatment if you have a weakened immune system (the body’s natural defence system), for example, if you:

If you have a weakened immune system you will need specialist treatment because genital herpes can last longer and be more severe.


Page last reviewed: 22/08/2014

Next review due: 22/08/2016